Japan: Tourism Troubles

I write a monthly column for Consumers Union of Japan's newsletter, and the theme for January is tourism. You have probably seen them, and read the statistics. Over 13 million tourists entered Japan in 2014, a record high. In fact, the number has doubled in the last 10 years. And for 2020, the government aims for 20 million.

Of course there are a lot of wonderful things to do and see. Possible troubles would usually be laughed off, a smile will save the day. There is an old saying, "When you embark on a journey, you will have a story to tell..."

Except, Japan is not prepared for this level of foreign interest in its culture or favourite places. In my column, I wonder why there is no place for redress or complaints, as more tourists will increasingly be encountering difficulties or disappointments. That's only natural, it happens at all popular destinations. But here, hotel staff often don't speak English, taxi drivers are an elderly bunch with a slow learning curve (most can hardly operate the GPS or Navi installed but also carry no book maps...) and few restaurants have menus in foreign languages.

I was shocked last fall when visiting Kyoto, and saw the crowds at popular places like Kiyomizu Temple. If a fire broke out, or if someone fell ill and needed an ambulance, there would be absolutely no way for rescue services to arrive. Many walking paths are also open to cars, making for close encounters with vehicles and pedestrians. Kyoto, in my opinion, has already reached the limit...

And even here in Tokyo, a JR station like Nippori, that has a direct link to Narita, still has no English train map. How is a freshly arrived tourist going to know how to take the trains, or what to pay? Come on, at least the nation's capital's Yamanote Line stations ought to be bi- or trilingual!?

Speaking of trains, why not provide more useful information about this country's amazing baggage delivery system? Takkyubin means you don't have to struggle with your heavy suitcase(s) anymore. Ship them! But most hotels provide no information about this useful service. Thus, you get tourists boarding the Shinkansen and other transportation, only to discover that there is no space for large luggage.

With over 5 million visitors last year from Taiwan and China, you would imagine that more places would care to hire Chinese-speaking staff. And we all know that even English is taught not for fluency but for passing tests. This means hurdles that Japan has failed to figure out ways to overcome.

What to do if your hotel room reeks of cigarette smoke? Do complain. Be polite (of course) but firmly demand a smoke-free room. If the hotel doesn't provide it, or is fully booked, and if you can show evidence that you actually asked for it when making your reservation, do ask to speak to the manager. And if that doesn't work, how about contacting the Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO). Currently, they don't have any services to help tourists in trouble. I think this is a consumer issue, and they need to start thinking hard about how to provide services when things go wrong.

Nippori station map from the cool type n travel blog!

Top image of a smoking hot volcano, from the JNTO website, of Sakurajima in Kagoshima.


Unknown said…
Even in places like Kyoto I just don't know/understand how your 'average' tourist gets by, reading stuff and of course communicating?conversation.

In Alan Booth's 'Road to Sata' a commone theme is where he arrives in some remote (of even not!) ryokan/minshuku and announcing his arrival (while also noticing the invariably shoeless genkan. A woman comes down and is bemeused to see a sole foreigner while still looking around for the Japanese speaker. He asks 'Heya ga...' and she says that alas they are full for the night. So, we have that awkward 'Maa...' moment where he looks are the shelves with no shoes present. He found a technique whereby he would state his case straight away, ie he could speak Japanese, had stayed in many such places before, would not use soap in the o-furo etc. Ie x 2 also making it easy for the host in that he appreciated his concern and did not like natto for breakfast. So, from then on he'd be sitting in his room enjoying a 500ml bottle of cold Kirin.

Personally speaking I found the best thing about studying Japanese, resume aside, was being able to engage with local people while on travels. Sounds 'obvious' but not! Off the top of my head I remember a trip we drove round Noto-Hanto and stayed at a road-side minshuku. At dinner there was an elderly gentlean sharing a massive bottle of shochu with a chum. A simple little moment the friend retired to his room and the elderly chap turned to me and a friend and calmly asked us if we spoke to Japanese. 'Yes, we do.' and he ibvited us to join him and have some shochu. Thus followed a fabulous two hours and even, when at about midnight, he also left we were still able to get a couple of bottles said bottles above, cross the road sit on the beach (or whatever it was!).

Japan has set itself a massive massive challenge with the Olympics in just 5 years now. Is the infracture, as you say Martin, really going to be able to cope wit the influx, esp re language? I have to say, finally, that when in Japan for the 2002 there was a very visible presence in terms of helping people. Maybe not in terms of being able to deal with eigo but otherwise they could not have been more helpful. But, in my case, maybe it's a case of chicken and egg - I knew how to ask for help and deal with any issues. But if no knowledge/experience at all..?
Unknown said…
'Bottles said bottles'?!?? Of course, meant 500ml Kirin ones!
Pandabonium said…
Smoke-free room - absolutely. Not just because the smell is awful, but because residues remain on surfaces that can affect your health by touch. Check out this vid and referenced peer review studies...

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